Chicago • Technology is supposed to make us easier to reach, and often does. But the same modes of communication that have hooked us on the instant reply also can leave us feeling forgotten.
We send an email, a text or an instant chat message. We wait — and nothing happens. Or we make a phone call. Leave a voicemail message. Wait. Again, nothing.
We tend to assume it’s a snub, and sometimes it is.
Erica Swallow, a 26-year-old New Yorker, says she’s heard a former boyfriend brag about how many text messages he never reads. "Who does that?" she asks, exasperatedly.
These days, though, no response can mean a lot of things. Maybe some people don’t see messages because they prefer email and you like Twitter. Maybe we’re just plain overwhelmed, and can’t keep up with the constant barrage of communication.
Whatever the reason, it’s causing a lot of frustration. A recent survey by the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that 39 percent of cellphone owners say people they know complain because they don’t respond promptly to phone calls or text messages. A third of cell owners also have been told they don’t check their phones frequently enough.
It happens in love. It happens in business.
"Tell me to go to hell, but just tell me something! I’m getting lonely over here." That’s what Cherie Kerr, a public relations executive in Santa Ana, Calif., jokes she’s considered putting after her email signature.
It happens in families.
Last year, Terri Barr, a woman on Long Island, N.Y., with grown children, sent her son a birthday present — a $350 gift certificate for "a wonderful kayaking trip for six, lunch, wine, equipment," she says.
She sent him an email with the details, but he didn’t respond. She says she then telephoned and texted him to tell him it was a present. He eventually sent a one-line email, she says, telling her he was too busy to open her email.
Instant communication "can be wonderful — but also terrible," says Barr, who waited six months before she gave the trip to someone else.
In the end, Barr got her response, albeit one she didn’t want (and this year, she sent him a birthday gift by snail-mail in a box, "and he actually opened it").
But, when people don’t respond to electronic communication, we’re often left wondering.
"That’s where the frustration lies — it’s in the ambiguity," says Susannah Stern, a professor of communication studies at San Diego State University.
Though we often assume the worst, experts say we shouldn’t.
Frequently, they say, people simply — and unknowingly — choose the wrong way to contact someone.
"I admit to having often been lax with checking my work number voicemail, which has led to me not responding to people waiting for my reply," says Janet Sternberg, an assistant professor of communication and media studies at Fordham University.
She’s also had technical glitches. For instance: thinking she’d sent a text message to someone overseas and then, when he didn’t respond, realizing she had his international number programmed incorrectly in her phone.
"The sheer management of all these devices and channels is exhausting and sometimes daunting, leaving less and less time for actual communication," Sternberg says. "We connect more but communicate less, in many ways."
That’s why many people say they have no choice but to prioritize — and to respond only to the most urgent messages.Next Page >
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